When Anurag and Shikha Jain decided to quit their lucrative corporate jobs in search of a frugal, simple and sustainable life, they did not find it hard to explain to their families why. Anurag had been working for a year with L&T and Shikha, with an MNC. Among the many pro-rural development projects that the couple runs, is the natural, handmade soaps venture named—Neev Soaps, aimed at empowering the rural women.
“We saw trends change. Parents started encouraging their daughters to continue their higher studies and did not pressure them to get married. These women are now contributors to the family, not just financially but otherwise too. They are decision-makers. Mothers use their incomes to send their kids to better schools. We are now training them in self-defence, organic gardening, computer skilling, carpentry and incense stick making,” shares Shikha, speaking to The Better India (TBI).
“Drawn by the teachings of the philosopher, J Krishnamurti, we wanted to be more aware of our being, be attuned to nature and find answers to fundamental questions of life. This inquiry led us to give up our corporate jobs and join an alternative school by the Krishnamurti Foundation of India (KFI). It was here that we developed a vision for an alternative and holistic education system that is based on collective inquiry. Education was our calling because we knew that would allow us to shape young minds,” Shikha narrates.
Wanting to make education accessible to poor children, the couple began NEEV School for the urban and rural underprivileged children in the year 2006. Apart from that, they also ran several projects including setting up self-help groups and micro-enterprises for rural women, setting up health centres and camps, learning centres and promoting sustainable farming practices amongst 600 farmer families.
“While the school successfully ran for almost a decade, we decided to shut it in 2018. We were disappointed with the present system of education which we feel is an arm of industrialisation and the parents want their children to be educated only for getting jobs in industries. The structure of the school didn’t give the freedom to do self inquiry and questioning of society,” informs Shikha.
To find a sustained source of income to run their other projects without having to only rely on grants, they decided to turn the natural soapmaking workshops once held for NEEV school’s Class 7 students into a venture.
Looking at the products, some of the village women in search of better livelihood opportunities, had approached the couple. They expressed an interest in learning the manufacturing process of these natural soaps.
After six months of training, when the couple sold the soaps made by the women to their friends and family, they were mindblown at the feedback. Thus NEEV Herbal Handmade Soaps became the couple’s entrepreneurial venture.
Registered under the Khadi Village Industries Commission, the vision of the company is not only to generate profits to promote the activities of the NEEV Trust but also provide livelihood opportunities to rural women while honouring the planet too.
What makes NEEV soaps different?
As opposed to the soaps available in the market, Neev soaps are made with vegetable (coconut, castor, olive and mahua) and essential oils. They have no added chemicals or artificial colours.
Mahua Oil has been traditionally used by the tribal communities of Jharkhand and helps to keep the skin healthy and glowy. The couple’s organic farm provides most of the ingredients used in the soaps (e.g. rose, aloe vera, mehndi, ashwagandha, Shatavari, bhringraj, Brahmi, clove, basil, cucumber, amaranth, Harar, Behera, lemon etc.). Other ingredients like papaya, neem, khadira, tomato, carrot, drumstick, custard apple, are organically grown in the village.
All product formulations are based on Ayurveda, aromatherapy and naturopathy.
The products are mild and nourishing to the skin and do not rob the skin of its natural oil.
The soaps are made in small batches using cold-process method, which preserves the beneficial qualities of herbal ingredients. All of the products are handmade by rural women.
No air, water, or soil pollution is caused during the production of the soaps since the unit is as silent as any other village house using as much electricity and creating no wastage of any kind. The runoff water is used to water the couple’s farm.
The shelf life of all products is from six to 18 months and though this hurts the business, it is an assurance of the fact that there are minimal or no chemical preservatives in the products and that the consumers get to use freshly made herbal products.
Neev employs only rural women for the production of soaps. Though the current number of women working at the unit is about 50, till date, the unit has improved livelihoods for more than 400+ rural women. Most of whom also go to college and pay tuition fee through their income at the soap unit.
Describing the success of the soap venture, that also won a national award, Shikha adds,
“In 2008, when we showcased our products at a trade fair in Delhi, our first ever exhibition, our band of women who had never stepped outside their own villages on their own, travelled to the national capital. Many of the women who worked with us moved to take up jobs in sales jobs in malls and popular brands.”
The village that was once plagued with social issues such as mahua addiction, early marriages, violence, criminal activity, is now becoming more progressive. The immediate impact was the empowerment of the village women.
Praba Munda, who works at the unit, says, “I have lived the entirety of my life in this village. But it wasn’t until NEEV came to our village that my mind opened to the world that existed outside. It not only skilled me to produce soaps, lotions, oil, lip balms, shampoos and other body care products but made me financially independent. Earlier I had to ask my husband for money for any personal expenses, but now as a working woman, I can handle them on my own.”
As a recognition for their work, Anurag and Shikha have won various state and national-level awards. Their vision is to now set up other such units, and generate employment for more rural women.
Vision and what lies ahead for Neev
“The vision of Neev is to question the way man has lived on Earth and see all the limitations of his living, thereby bringing a mutation in the consciousness of man, for a.holistic way of living, free from all conflict. The way forward for Neev is to bring about this mutation in ourselves, and keep sharing the journey with others, engaging in dialogue with those who would be interested in the same vision,” smiles Anurag.
If this story inspired you, support Anurag and Shikha’s cause.
(Edited by Saiqua Sultan)